Suddenly, things are getting a bit cramped in the back seat.
Like a group of kids trying to cram their way and somehow stay comfortable in the back seat of an economy car, the North Central baseball team now has that same feeling with four games left in Region 4-AA play.
Heading into Monday’s home game with Chesterfield, Knights’ head coach Robbie Cash and company had some room to work with. A little more than 90 minutes later, NC found itself in a tight squeeze after the Rams left Boonetown with a 3-2 victory.
The loss dropped the hosts to 3-5 in 4-AA play and, possibly, needing of a win or two in order to keep their playoff hopes alive.
"This loss won’t kill us," Cash said while alluding to the conference standings which have unbeaten Buford sitting atop the seven-team circuit. "We had some room to wiggle with but now, we’ve lost that wiggle room. This was a game that, if we would have won it, could have helped push us to where we want to be in terms of the post-season. Now, we have our backs against the wall. We have to keep playing hard but we’ll be OK."
In a crisply played game in which NC starter Tyler Bowers and Chesterfield’s Bailey Polson both carried shutouts into the seventh inning, it was the guests scoring three times in their final at-bat while the Knights hung up a two-spot while having the tying run gunned down at third base to end the game.
Bowers was the tough-luck loser in a complete game effort. The junior right-hander allowed seven hits and fanned nine while allowing two earned runs. Polson, who gave way to Daniel Rivers with two gone in the home half of the seventh, was up to the task as he allowed half of NC’s six hits in the two-run seventh. The righty only had two strikeouts while being backed by a defense which came up big all night long.
"I thought that one or two runs might be enough to win it," Cash said of Bowers’ performance.
"Tyler did a great job. He was around the plate and threw strikes. He only threw 80-something pitches. And their guy did a great job, as well. He only threw about 70-something pitches.
The pair traded goose eggs for six frames before the Rams broke through in the top of the seventh for three.
Nick Wallace got CHS going in the final frame with a leadoff single to left before being bunted over to second by Cooper Stone. With one gone, Trevor Wilkerson sent a run-scoring single to center to knock in the game’s first run. NC second baseman Stephen Barrett temporarily saved a run when he went far to his left to come up with a Josh Sellers grounder while gunning Sellers down at first in the process with Wilkerson holding up at second with two outs.
Wilkerson advanced to third on a wild pitch before Ryan Turner walked to put runners on the corners for leadoff batter Polson, who hit a slow chopper down the third base line. The throw to first missed the mark as Wilkerson scored from third while Turner circled the bags and scored from first base with the third run. Bowers would get Bryan Watson to line out to Alex Tarlton in left field for the final out.
"We had one little mishap which might have been able to save us one of those runs or, we’d still be playing now," Cash said of the top of the seventh. "But it is what it is."
Things did not look good for the hosts as Polson retired the first two batters he faced in the home portion of the seventh. Barrett gave the Knights a flicker of hope as he sent a two-out single to center for his second hit of the night. Tyler Bowers followed suit with a single to right to bring John Bowers to the plate.
Bowers then crushed what would be Polson’s final pitch of the game to left field with the shot reaching the fence on a hop. That brought both Barrett and Tyler Bowers across while John Bowers held up at second base. Rivers was then brought to the mound.
When CHS catcher Jeremiah Rivers could not come up with a pitch in the dirt, Bowers broke for third base. But the Rams’ backstop kept the ball in front of him and sent a strike to Watson at third base to get Bowers on a close play to end the game.
"We finally got to (Polson) a little bit and some balls started falling our way," Cash said of his team’s seventh-inning rally. "The last pitch was in the dirt and we make an aggressive base running play and they make another good play on us to end the game."
It was all but fitting that the guests would come up with a big play on defense to close this one out. The Rams played error-free baseball while snuffing out several potential Knight threats. The first of those came in the bottom of the first after Tyler Bowers belted a one-out double to right. With Bowers on third and Chase Stephens, who walked, on first with two outs, Cam Holley sent a rocket to Watson at third. Watson made the grab and stepped on third to end the inning.
Watson came up big again in the fourth, stabbing a Tyler Steele sinking liner to close the inning with NC stranding runners on first and second for a second time. An inning later, Barrett led off the fifth by lining a one-hopper which Polson was able to get his glove on only to deflect the ball in the direction of Sellers at second base whose throw to first just got Barrett.
"We put the ball in play and they made the plays," Cash said matter-of-factly. "We probably should have gone a little deeper in counts but we didn’t. We were aggressive and we were hitting ground balls right at them.
"Cam Holley hits two shots down the line and their third baseman dives for them and gets them. Their shortstop made every play possible. Barrett hits a shot up the middle and (Polson) sticks his glove out and they ended up making the play. They just played better than we did.
"I tip my hat. I don’t mind losing to a team that makes every play in the field like they did tonight."